This month the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released a new report that documents religious freedom violations occurring in North Korea. Based on interviews with North Korean survivors, witnesses, and even perpetrators of religious freedom violations, the report concludes that “the denial of religious freedom is absolute” in the hermit kingdom. This brutal reality must inform the Biden administration’s foreign policy approach to North Korea.
North Korea denies religious freedom to its people from the moment they are born, and schoolchildren are even taught to fear religious believers. One propogandist movie shown in North Korean schools, The Missionary,shows an American missionary swindling Korean children. According to interviewees in the USCIRF report, schools teach children about the supposed evils of religion and specifically missionaries. Hong Na Yong, a North Korean defector, told the report’s authors, “People even use the word ‘missionary’ as a curse word.” Lee Yong, another defector, said of North Korean schoolchildren, “We do not know who Jesus is, but we are educated to be afraid of the cross.”
The regime cracks down on superstition, including shamanism, as an ordinary criminal case. However, Christianity is treated as an enemy-related crime. This is because the North Korean regime closely associates Christianity with America and therefore feels deeply threatened by the Christian faith.
At all turns, North Korean propaganda instills the idea that religious people are villainous. Another interviewee described heinous depictions of missionaries in a North Korean museum. One image portrayed a missionary writing the word “thief” in acid on a child’s head as a punishment for picking and eating a rotten apple.
To Western ears, this anti-religion propaganda sounds preposterous, and it is. Kim Jong Un’s regime seems to be going to great lengths to teach people to fear religion because it is afraid of religion, and especially Christian missionaries who might bring the Gospel to the North Korean people. But why should that be? The few Christian missionaries who manage to interact with North Koreans along the Chinese border could hardly start a revolution.
Yet missionaries and religious believers do represent something threatening to the regime—people who live for something bigger than the socialist state or anything the state could give them. Worshiping a higher power than state leaders is an ideological deviation the regime cannot allow, especially as it tries to make the people worship the Kim family dictators.
Thus, North Korea harshly punishes practicing Christians. Jung Chun Deok, himself once imprisoned in North Korea, told USCIRF researchers that a fellow prisoner detained for his Christian faith used to pray during a small window of free time each morning. This simple expression of faith enraged the Ministry of State Security officers, who kicked and beat the prisoner with clubs, once even to the brink of death. The Christian was eventually sentenced to 15 years in a labor camp for political prisoners.
The North Korean regime is breaking international human rights treaties by fully denying religious freedom, and it has created a cruel and comprehensive system for doing so. What is the world’s response to this? It cannot be simply continuing to ignore the abuses.
As the foreign policy of the Biden administration toward North Korea unfolds, human rights must be a primary concern, not relegated to the sidelines. The administration should also work closely with USCIRF to ensure that religious freedom and human rights concerns are considered when dealing with North Korea.
Without an improvement in human rights conditions, the stakes are high for Christians and all people in North Korea. World leaders should treat this issue with the sense of urgency it deserves.